September 15, 2014

The Philosophy of the Yoga Body: 3 Easy Steps. ~ Amy Vaughn

Photo: Clint Cook / Pixoto

There is a lot of buzz right now about the yoga body. In case you’ve been hiding under your mat, here are the two yoga bodies that are being talked about:

The yoga body.

Portrayed as thin, toned, and flexible, as well as usually white, young, and female, this is the body the yoga industry tries to sell the public. Do yoga, they imply, and get this yoga body.

The real yoga body.

The reality is that people who actually do yoga, come in all shapes and sizes. Many of these people feel that the industry not only falsely represents yoga, but that the images associated with yoga in the media contradict, and in some cases, can undo the attitude of self-acceptance that is central to the practice of yoga.

But what does yoga say about the body? I wanted to see what the yoga tradition, with its long history of astounding insights and guidance toward enlightenment, has to say about the body and then apply that to the discussion.

Here, in three easy steps, is a radical simplification of the place of the body in yoga philosophy:

1. All is One.

To reveal how yoga, and hatha yoga in particular, positions the body within its philosophy, we need to go back to the early Upanishads, the ancient texts of “secret knowledge.” It’s here that we see the first use of the term yoga—it refers to a process by which a person can gain direct knowledge of the Sacred.

The early Upanishads tell us that there is only Brahman, the Sacred Self. Some people call this God, with a capital G. Brahman created the universe out of Itself. To attain spiritual liberation, a person must realize that their Ātman (or true self on the individual scale) is identical with Brahman.

Brahman, Ātman, creation—it’s all the same sacred thing and we are part of it. The Chandogya Upanishad uses metaphors like honey made from the nectar of different flowers and an ocean filled with water from different rivers. All is One.

2. The material world is Sacred.

Flash forward! Around the 5th century we find Tantra Yoga. The Tantrics say, if everything is of the same sacred substance, then the material world is sacred and we are sacred, too. The goal of human life is to realize that we are the Divine made manifest.

Pierre Bernard, one of the very first American hatha yoga teachers, said it this way, “the material world is lit to its atoms by the spark of God.” It follows then that our bodies are the part of the Sacred for which we are responsible. We must treat them, as well as others and the world at large, with reverence.

3. The human body is the embodied Sacred, conscious of itself.

Hatha yoga derived from Tantra—it is the yoga of the body, meaning hatha yoga uses the body as its source of coming into contact with the Sacred. Using pranayama (breathing exercises), asana (postures), mudras (hand gestures), and meditation, we awaken to the ever-present reality of our divine essence.

In the end, this can be said about the place of the body in hatha yoga philosophy—everything is part of Brahman, part of the Sacred, but it is only through being incarnated as a human that we have the opportunity for Self-realization. Our body is the portal through which we can experience the Sacred firsthand. To quote Pierre Bernard again, “All the divinity we can ever know is in our carcasses.”

Yoga sometimes seems to have come a long way from its roots, but the people who are saying, “This is my yoga body” are communicating a core principle of yoga philosophy. It’s no surprise to find that the folks trying to sell the yoga body have missed the mark.

First of all, you do not have to do anything to get a yoga body—you already are a manifestation of the great creative force of the Universe! And second, there is no standard physique for a yoga body. Every single body is an artistic rendering of the Sacred by the Sacred.

Our job, and it’s a tough one, is simply to remember who we really are!


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Assistant Editor: Jessica Sandhu / Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Pixoto

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Amy Vaughn